Under Capricorn (1949)

“You took part in an unsavoury debauch.”

Whenever I watch a film that deals with the old convict days of Australia, I wonder how modern-day Australians feel about this part of their history, so that thought cropped up as I watched the lesser-known Hitchcock film, Under Capricorn. Based on the novel by Helen Simpson, this should be a torrid tale of passion–the classic love triangle–or quadrangle– that takes place in the heat of 1831 Australia amidst the snobbery and hypocrisy of British rule. The film isn’t entirely successful as it never seems to go quite far enough into the dark corners of human nature, but it’s still well-worth catching.

Appropriately the film begins with the arrival of the new governor played with a perfect touch by Cecil Parker– a man who’s quietly appalled by the conditions he’d rather not see. The Governor has a poor relation in tow, second cousin Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), and there’s the unspoken idea that while the penniless Adare is supposed to somehow or another make his fortune in Australia, he’s also been sent there as some sort of last-ditch effort in recuperation. Adare, who’s Irish, is very open to the notion of making new acquaintances, and his merry countenance indicates an openness that’s lacking in the prim-and-proper Governor and his staff.

Adare almost immediately strikes up an acquaintance with Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten)–a so-called “emancipationist” which is a delicate term for ex-convict. Although Flusky has served his 5-year sentence for murder and is now a wealthy landowner, he’s ostracised from the upper echelons of Australian society. Flusky invites Adare to his home for dinner, and the Governor warns Adare that under no circumstances must he ever dine at the home of an ‘emancipationist.‘ This is a country in which newcomers are advised not to talk about the past, and while that may indicate that the past is supposedly forgiven and forgotten, that’s not true. An intense snobbery reigns about origins–it’s just not discussed. This lack of discussion is mirrored throughout life in 1830s Australian society, and consequently we see no small amount of neurotic and sadistic behavior that takes place behind closed doors. Flusky chafes at the fact he’s not good enough for the ball at the Governor’s Mansion, and yet he treats his convict servants like a pack of wild animals. Several times throughout the film, he threatens his staff with their “pink slips.”

Adare, intrigued by Flusky, and in direct defiance of his cousin, arrives at the Flusky estate at dusk. The coachman who delivers Adare to the gates, refuses to go inside the mansion “Minyago Yugilla” which is translated to mean: “why weepest thou.” The coachman’s reluctance to enter the estate seems to be a wise move, for Adare, unable to gain entry to the mansion peers through to the kitchen where he spies one servant being held down while she’s whipped by another.

Things inside the Flusky household don’t get any better. The dinner party turns out to be a bizarre event, and while various local men of substance attend, all of their wives beg off with various excuses of ill health. It’s an “epidemic” Adare notes as he grasps the social consequences.  Even Flusky’s wife Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman)  is absent–ill supposedly–until she makes a dramatic appearance barefoot and drunk.

As fate would have it, Adare remembers Henrietta as a glamorous figure from his youth, but the Lady Henrietta he once knew no longer exists–Henrietta Flusky is now an alcoholic who hoards bottles of booze in her bedroom, and while she’s largely confined to her room, the treacherous viper of a housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton) rules the roost with delectable sadism and religious hypocrisy. It’s obvious that there’s an unhealthy undercurrent to the Flusky household , but what went wrong? A young vibrant and defiant Henrietta eloped with Flusky who was her family’s groom, and while this may explain the giant chip on his shoulder, there’s obviously something unhealthy simmering beneath the surface.

Under Capricorn has gothic elements which are never fully realized–there’s the build-up around Adare’s arrival, for example, the business with the shrunken heads, and then there’s Henrietta’s madness… she’s unhinged at the beginning of the film but then seems to undergo repair under Adare’s encouragement. The plot also hints at some darker elements which are never explored. At one point, for example, Adare asks Henrietta how she survived financially in Australia during the 5 years she waited for Flusky. This question seems to cause some mental anguish, so we are left to guess the answer to that one.

Hitchcock first became interested in Under Capricorn when he was sent a copy of the novel. He claimed that he made the film for Ingrid Bergman, yet ironically the filming placed some strain on the relationship between Hitchcock and his leading lady. Before shooting finished, scandal swamped Ingrid Bergman due to her much publicised affair with Italian director Robert Rossellini. Bergman and Rossellini subsequently left their spouses in order to live together–a relationship that led to Bergman’s ostracism from Hollywood for several years, and the bad publicity at the time did little to help Under Capricorn at the box office.

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Filed under Hitchcock, Period Piece

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